CIO interview: Crunch year for Birmingham council's transformation project

This year is set to be a crunch year for Birmingham City Council's huge transformation project.

This year is set to be a crunch year for Birmingham City Council's huge transformation project.

The Customer First programme, which will deliver a single online account for every citizen, is due to be rolled out later in 2010, along with two other projects.

There are nine separate projects in total. Glynn Evans (pictured), head of transformation at the council, said, "This next year is probably going to be a peak year for activity."

The council will start to roll out an employment management system in 2010, which will provide a single path for employee performance management from recruitment to appraisals.

And an electronic document management system will be introduced to the social care department, providing a work flow and paper trail. "We tracked social workers for a week and found they spent 20% of their time just looking for the right paperwork. This system will put an end to that," Evans said.

Work began on the transformation programme in April 2006, and major development work will finish in three years' time. Evans said some of the project's benefits are beginning to be felt, but there have been some technical and management issues because of its size.

"There are many technical challenges," he said. "They partly arise from us doing so much at once. Our core software product is SAP, but we have a huge range of back office systems as well. At the same time as rolling out CRM, we are also implementing payroll and HR.

"There is a management issue as well. Transforming one system is quite hard, but doing it on many systems is very difficult. I think we probably underestimated that challenge when we started and we have learnt a lot from that," he said.

Another technical challenge centres around the task of linking up all the separate systems into the single customer accounts. The aim of the Customer First project is to make the council look simple to consumers, but with 140 different systems it is anything but. Security issues have also arisen when it comes to getting customers to prove who they are on the accounts, and the council is working with the Information Commissioner on this.

Evans said the team had learnt a lot from the work it has done so far and advised any others thinking of taking on such a big project to be clear about the aims. "You have got to make a fundamental decision at the start - do you want to transform a service area, or simply improve it?

"If you transform it, the gains are bigger but take longer to achieve. If you improve it, the gains are smaller but quicker. And if you are going to transform, make sure there are sufficient resources behind it. It is not something you can do as a sideline to the day job."

Evans said the biggest block to change in a political organisation is the fact that it is seen as very risky, making his job to make the process as risk-free as possible. He urged other CIOs and CTOs not to mention IT.

"Never talk about IT, always talk about business change. As soon as you start talking about IT you can see the glazed expressions. I have never called it an IT-enabled change programme, but a business change programme."

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